Editor Roundtable: Bite Size Edition – Genre

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Welcome to the Bite Size Edition of the Editor Roundtable Podcast. Here on the Roundtable we’re dedicated to helping you become a better writer, following the Story Grid method developed by Shawn Coyne.

In these episodes we bring you some shorter solo articles and interviews on topics that interest us as writers.

Hi. This is Anne Hawley, and today I’m bringing you a presentation on the importance of genre by our fellow Story Grid Certified Editor, Rachelle Ramirez. 

Rachelle delivered this fun talk at Story Grid Live 2019 in Nashville, and because there were problems recording the event, we asked her to reproduce it for us here. 

So join me, and Rachelle, for a quick bite of writing insight, starting right now.

A new editing client called me in crisis. Let’s call him Roger. With his voice cracking, Roger said, “My novel is either going to kill me, or my marriage, or both. I’ve been working on it for 5 years and I’m stuck. My wife says I have to finish it this year or choose between her and the book. It’s gotten so bad that I’m not sleeping, I’m getting sick, and I don’t know what to do.”

Lots of writers get into similar situations. Perhaps not so severe.

  • Maybe they call it writer’s block. 
  • Maybe they know something is wrong with their story but they just can’t figure out what it is. 
  • Maybe they’ve written themselves into a corner and don’t know how to get out.

Let’s examine the typical solutions writers have to these challenges:

They might navel gaze by looking down and saying, “Well, it’s an innie, there’s a mole, there’s all that hair, at least that is something I can control with electrolysis. It looks like the butt of a cabbage patch doll.”

But seriously, some writers just try working harder and longer. Some wallow in anxious procrastination. And the worst case scenario, is that they quit the work altogether.

If you are one of these writers, the problem isn’t you.

The problem is that you are missing information you don’t even know you’re missing. You don’t have the toolbox you can paw through to find the tool you need to do the job. You might not even know which tool to look for. That was certainly the case for me before I found The Story Grid.

So what do you do when you don’t know what you need to become a better writer? 

  • You learn about sentence structure and passive voice.
  • You join a critique group full of very opinionated amateurs.
  • You write a prologue for your prologue’s prologue.
  • You create a playlist that your characters listen to.
  • You research the styles of canes used in 1902, or how many grommets in a girdle. Is that for just one side or both? 
  • You write long backstories for minor characters.
  • You eat a whole cake.

In short, you waste time and spin your wheels. 

To keep that from hurting, you convince yourself you are writing when you’re really dawdling. 

Then what? If you’re like most writers when they get stuck, you’ll start blaming yourself, quit, or stew in resistance. Don’t beat yourself up. You were NOT dropped on your head when you were a baby. You’re NOT ugly, and you’re not stupid.

There is a solution. 

To move forward with our stuck stories, we must examine our work by the standards of our chosen genre because genre can solve almost every story problem, if you know when and how to use it.

Now, by genre, I mean the content genres. If you’re not familiar with the Story Grid genres, check out the genre five leaf clover. There is tons of info in the Story Grid book. I’ve written a blog post series, the Secrets of Genre, which you can find on storygrid.com. This Editor Roundtable podcast is also a great genre resource.

Let’s go back to Roger, my editing client who was going to lose love and die because he couldn’t finish his book.

We started with genre…. 

He described his basic outline and we identified he was mixing 5 genres. No wonder he was having a hard time gaining clarity. I can certainly relate to this and I bet you can too.

We narrowed Roger’s genres down to three. He was certain he had a business performance story with a morality subplot. I wasn’t convinced.

We found his masterworks by talking about the stories that inspired his, the stories he thought were closest to the kind of story he wanted to tell. Then we examined the genres of those works. They were Action and Worldview and Status.

To solve Roger’s story problems, we examined his story with the framework of the Worldview Genre. He was able to make a solid case for his character’s primary change being most like that in Goodwill Hunting. But he still needed an external genre to force the change of that Worldview story.

So I suggested we look at the Action Genre.

But wait. Roger didn’t want to write an Action story. He was committed to the Performance Genre. So we looked closely at Performance again. 

I said, “Roger, you don’t have a big performance event or a training period for the event. The Performance Genre requires both. Are you going to put those in?” 

He said, “No. those don’t fit the story.” 

I said, “That’s why your Performance story doesn’t work.” 

He was still reluctant to look at Action, so I tried a different angle and said, “Your protagonist reminds me of Batman.” And he lit up!

“Wow. I’ve always identified with Batman. His character always appealed to me in many ways.” 

So we weighed his protagonist’s arc against Batman’s and found the links. 

Both stories had protagonists who were adults, orphaned at a young age, and raised by well-meaning and loving non-family members. Each protagonist had a personal moral line they were determined not to cross, no matter what. 

They were both trying to live as both their ego and superego. 

They both wanted order and connection to others. 

And the protagonists’ primary wants were to save the victims and render the antagonist useless.

Now Roger was excited. He was writing Batman meets Goodwill Hunting. Action. Worldview. Now he had a roadmap to solve the problems he was facing and he had hope.

We took out the Secrets of the Genre blogs and compared and contrasted Action and Worldview. We looked at where his scenes could overlap, where one genre could impact the other, and Roger was able to map his entire second draft. By using genre as a guide.

When he got stuck, he’d look to either his masterworks for how they solved a particular problem or the guidelines of the genre to weigh a decision. He created a foolscap and started putting his book on the spreadsheet which enabled him to identify missing and excess scenes by the dozen.

But to listeners, all this sounds too easy, right? How do you solve with genre if you can’t solve for genre? 

Well, you stop and solve for genre. You’ve gotten ahead of yourself.

So let’s look at some clues for figuring out which genre you’re writing in, just in case you don’t already know. Try asking yourself these questions:

  1. How does the protagonist change from the beginning to the end of the story? You can examine the global values of each genre and see which one your story most closely matches.
  2. What does your protagonist most want and need? Many of the wants, but especially the needs, are linked to a limited number of genres. 
  3. What’s your climactic scene? Writers usually know what this is. Which genre is most closely related to that type of climactic scene. Check the core events of each genre you are considering.
  4. What’s your inciting incident? What launches the story points directly to the type of story the reader can expect. Again, the Secrets of the Genre series is a great resource.
  5. How do you want the reader to feel at the end of the story? This is often a great clue to your subgenre as well.
  6. What’s the primary emotion you want to evoke in your reader throughout the story? Every genre has a core emotion related to it.
  7. And finally, here is a cheat that I used to hate but now love: What existing story is your story the most similar to? What’s the genre of that story? You’ll likely find your answer here because no story is entirely new.

Now, just knowing your genre and having a couple of really good masterworks doesn’t solve all your story problems, does it? You’re getting close. But the beans aren’t cooking. 

I worked with Roger for 12 weeks. I didn’t just wave a magic story wand made with that lock of Shawn Coyne’s hair that I cut off as a souvenir at my first Story Grid Event. Roger worked hard and during that time we solved a lot of problems by going back to genre and subsequently the masterworks. 

He had a problem with his antagonist. “Well, which villain in Batman most aligns with yours?” 

He said, “The Joker!”

“Okay. So, let’s examine the Joker and the chaos and darkness he forces Batman and the other victims to encounter. He’s chaos and a phere. He’s the snitch and Voldemort. He’s the darkness inside us all. 

So Roger’s homework was to examine antagonistic forces. On our next call, Roger had unexpectedly written an entire thesis on the Joker and had aligned his antagonist in form. It was amazing work. Roger’s voice was light, and I dare say happy.

Still, he was struggling with the roles of the victims. What danger were they really in? What was Batman willing to do and not willing to do to save the Joker’s victims? 

Well, Batman is not willing to kill. No matter how despicable the Joker is, Batman’s not willing to go to the darkside. He thinks, if he does, he’ll never come back from that. 

Roger’s protagonist wasn’t willing to betray his family under any circumstances. Doing so was damnation to him. And since the antagonist was the protagonist’s family member, this set-up a brilliant arc and clear conflict and obstacles for his protagonist. 

Roger identified missing conventions and obligatory scenes, what he needed to flesh out. Now, he saw the scenes that didn’t fit with the arc, even more so than when he put his first draft (Performance/Morality) on the spreadsheet. And with a lot less work.

What ultimately happened with Roger’s first draft? 

He finished it. He’s appreciative, his wife sent me a thank you note, and he’s both hopeful and relieved that he has a clear path forward. He’s Batman.

Now, you don’t have to use genre at all. If you’re sailing through your draft and the muse is singing, you’d do yourself a great disservice if you stopped to read the Story Grid, if you started weighing your work against the standards of your genre, if you even stopped to try and label the work of the muse with genre. So don’t do it. Keep writing. Save the tools for when you get stuck.

Because being stuck with your story sucks. And every writer knows how bad that hurts. When you find yourself there, what do you have to lose by using your genre parameters to solve your story problems? 

I look at it this way: To not finish the story the muse sent you is to live in damnation. If you hold back and hoard your story, trying to perfect it and never getting to its readers, it’s damnation.

So tackle the basic steps.

  • find a masterwork
  • identify your primary and secondary genre using the secrets of the genre blog series.
  • write an outline, foolscap, and spreadsheet
  • identify advance readers for your work who understand genre, or hire an editor
  • Try this: Use genre to solve at least one story problem this week. If you don’t know your genre, choose one and try it out. 

If you haven’t weighed your current story against the obligatory scenes and conventions of your chosen genre, do it. Whatever it is, you’re going to use genre to solve a problem. 

Then post in the comments section what you solved for and how you did it. 

Finally, read read read, both for depth and breadth.

Choose your genre well and use it every time you get stuck. You or your protagonist can be Batman, or any superhero you choose.

If you’d like to learn more about Rachelle and her Story Grid editing services, you can find her at rachelleramirez.com. Her introductory guide Genre: Story’s Starting Point will be published as a Story Grid Beat in March, 2020.

Her short story, “The Good Daughter,” is part of the anthology Twelve Core Events: A Dozen Original Short Stories Prompted by Genre Masterworks, which will be published by Story Grid Editions in May.

Rachelle is also working on the Story Grid resource that everyone is waiting for: a big, definitive book of genre. She and Shawn will be talking through this exciting project on the main Story Grid Podcast. Watch for those episodes beginning in December.

Join us for another Bite Size Episode next week. The Editor Roundtable Podcast will return with full length episodes on December 11.

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Anne Hawley is a developmental editor specializing in literary historical fiction and stories set in fantasy and science fiction worlds. When she’s not editing, she’s creating courses for writers at Pages & Platforms, a women-owned business aimed at helping diverse writers tell the best story they can—and then market it to its intended audience. Anne is the author of Restraint, a queer love story set in 19th Century London, and the forthcoming The Footman, set in the same universe. She lives and rides a bike around Portland, Oregon.